The Magic of Friday

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I keep on returning to a thought that recurred several times during our post-performance Q&A sessions: that Cunningham’s pieces create worlds unto themselves.  This seems true in terms of composition—many posts here have discussed their landscape qualities, with several independent parts that sometimes seem to come together in dialogue.  But I think there is also a more profound and immaterial way in which the company connected with one another, as well as with those who had danced this work before us.

While we had rehearsed steadily for months leading up to the performance, everything seemed to come alive in a new way while on stage.  It seemed that until then we had just been laying the groundwork, patching together circuits until we finally hit the switch on Friday.  Part of this was undoubtedly the grandeur of the gym space, the presence of the audience, the mere fact of performance.  And yet something felt very different from the dress rehearsals on Thursday (which were in the same space and had a small audience) to the performances on Friday, and from other shows I have done in the past.  There was a certain magic, a wonderful feeling that I have since tried (largely in vain) to revisit and recapture.

One essential aspect of this seemed to be the tremendous focus demanded by the work, and brought by the dancers.  Given the complexity of Merce’s movement, we had to know it well enough to be able to pour ourselves into the world—to pull ourselves out of our whirring heads and give something of ourselves to each other, and, if not to be expressive in the narrative sense, then at least to be present.  I did not predict how well and precisely things seemed to have come together, but I think from the moment that we stepped on stage—walking out like a sports team that had just been announced—we knew that we were stepping into something very special.  Though we had spoken at some length about their time in the company, Jen and Meg’s lectures and presences strongly conveyed the sense of great privilege that we had to carry this work on our bodies, and to access a tradition that spanned generations.

Emily mentioned that our reconstruction ultimately begged the question, “does dance die?”  As someone who spent most of my childhood dancing the work of Petipa, this question seemed startling.  Of course companies will continue to seek to mount Merce’s work, and his influenced will continue to be felt and discussed in new pieces that are made.  Yet my brief exposure to the company’s history indicates that something remarkable has been lost in the world of dance, and in the lives of so many individuals.  Practice and evolution were vital parts of Merce’s work.   Were Cunningham to be as codified and institutionalized as classical ballet, his work would certainly not “live” in the same sense as before.

Still, the dancers and now teachers who were touched by Merce breathe life into his legacy through their continued work with his and their own pieces.  I know that Cunningham’s work will also continue to live on, in some very small way, in me—from the class exercises that have made their way into my morning routine, to a new hunger and appreciation for modernism in dance.  I am so lucky and grateful to have been touched by that magic, and to step out of our performance much different (and differently!) than before.  If Merce’s adage that no two people walk the same can be extended to how we regard and approach movement generally, then I am certainly a different person for having, however briefly, entered his world.

Space, Time, and Movement in Ages of Cunningham

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One broad arc I observe in the excerpts of the four pieces we have learned is a shift in focus from time and spatial constraints/patterns to the physiology of movement, as Cunningham departs ever further from classical technique and explores new boundaries of the human body.  The technique used in our “Canfield skip” (1969) portion is largely derivative of ballet—sautés in passé, assemblés, arms movement through first and fifth high.  Though the legs are turned in and arms held straight down at moments, the aesthetic seems one of minimalism and understatement.  The main statement of the step is 1) the conceptual aspects of chance and game-playing, and 2) the geometric patterns and interlocking paths of bodies moving in space, governed by certain rules.  These create a sense of beauty and order among disorder, and allow the dancer a degree of autonomy and decision-making in the moment (though I wonder how much this translates to an audience, and if they sometimes assume that the full sequence is pre-determined).

Numbers (1982) also emphasizes patterns and timing (conducted in a round, like a chorus tune), though the technique diverges much more from classical.  I remember Neil strongly resisting labeling leg positions as a precise turned-out or turned-in attitude—an enigmatic instruction that was a bit frustrating, but makes a lot of sense in that 1) there is a degree of flexibility in the exact movement because the emphasis is on time and flow (though that may partly due to Neil’s valuing these qualities as he explained), but also 2) hard as it may be for a ballet mind to comprehend, it’s just a different movement!  It didn’t have to be the classical turned out or the binary opposite subversion (turned-in).  The round also creates a full and lush layering effect quite different from Canfield, since dancers are added at predictable intervals and more remain on stage together.  It reminds me of layering in audio recording when there’s a slight delay, and the dancer’s movements seem to accent each other.

Though Roaratorio (1983) has certain large group moments that were constructed through chance mechanisms, it seems much more about the movement itself than the patterns or concepts behind it.  For one, there are so many more individualized parts, for which there are unique movements that are not used anywhere else.  Though there are moments that are quite balletic, there are many distinctly Cunningham aspects such as the triplet/fives and lower back curves.

Finally Pond Way (1998) seems in some ways like a merger of new movement with an emphasis on space.  There are no time constraints, but rather each dancer is allowed and encourage to move at their own pace.  As Jennifer explained to us (and as our difficulty learning indicated!), the independence and dissonance of the arm and leg sequences was a very new feature that Cunningham was working with.

I cannot say which of these combinations of elements was better or more exciting—for one, I lack the dance studies expertise.  But in my mind they each grant the dancer and the audience different freedoms and ways of thinking about bodies in space.

Context in Cunningham

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Last week we ran the beginning solo and duet sections one by one, whereas they usually overlap in time and space (i.e. they are normally solos in the sense of individualized parts, but multiple occur simultaneously on stage).  This made for a different experience of my opening section with Molly.  Rather than simply freeing up space and allowing us to travel encumbered, the lack of other concrete bodies actually made some of the mapping more difficult—we accounted for the absent dancers differently, and therefore found it harder to stay side by side during periods of letting go and clasping hands.  I also fatigued significantly more and found it harder to get through the section, from what I believe to be a lack of the usual collective energy and distraction of others (as well as the increase pressure when performing.

This speaks to how space is perceived in relation to other objects, even when performing seemingly disconnected “solos.” It reminds me of a scene in The Aviator (2004) in which Howard Hughes (Leo DiCaprio) realizes that there must be clouds in the sky—objects of reference—in order for audiences to sense their distance from one another and from the ground.  Cunningham’s work seems to play around a lot with the idea of context more broadly, particularly with the way that “events” recontextualize and mash up different movement segments.

This experience of running the solos separately also showed how perceptions of bodies in time depend on/are affected by the other parts on stage.  Derrick and Hannah’s duet (though Hannah has been injured, so Derrick did it alone) seemed to take much longer than it usually does, without the other dancers to draw attention.  Some parts of the duet also seemed very new and unfamiliar, as I was accustomed to looking elsewhere on stage for certain moments.  In this way, the overlapping solos in the first part tend to come forward and recede, though I like the fact that there are not usually clear places when they should do so—it is a collage of sorts, from which the audience takes what they want.

Space: the next frontier

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After having fully memorized several movement sequences, we have been able to focus more intently on the spacing of the piece—both on individual and group levels.  It has taken much repetition in order to master the basic content of many complex Cunningham combinations.  Without having to constantly think about what comes next, some mental space is freed up in order to think more about space and execution generally.  On a group level, we have had to learn, figure out, and discover how to coexist and relate in the space.

The large group sequences—particularly what we have been referring to as the “up-up-down” and “fives”—have been especially difficult in this regard.  Here we encounter the dangers of bumping into other dancers, losing one’s partner in the crowd, upsetting the group formation, and so forth.  Jennifer has also been assembling “solo” sections that occur simultaneously on stage, for which we have had to adapt (even just mentally) to the presence of other bodies.  I believe “mapping” is a fitting term to describe the search for paths and understanding of visual patterns that occur.  The fact that our rehearsal space is smaller than the theater intensifies these dynamics, but in a way that I believe will beneficially hone our sensitivity to spatial relationships.

In short, the layer of spatial manipulation that we have increasingly added onto the movement has presented new challenges, but also a new layer of aesthetic complexity and satisfaction.  The space between solos functions at times to create a frenetic tension and sense of constant activity; at others there seem to be moments of connection or dialogue between the dancers that suddenly appear and then disappear again.

“Bum bum bum ba-bum”

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I first found the idea of rehearsing without music in Cunningham’s pieces to be utterly frustrating.  Through classical ballet I always felt music to be a vital vehicle for accessing artistry, and a source of energy when my body was fatigued.  Music provided instant emotional content and dynamics, flowing through the dancing body.  Add to this Cunningham’s dispensing of ballet narrative, and I felt strongly at a loss to express myself when counting through phrases in 5/4 and 11/8.

Gradually, however, I have seen that the absence of music has come to accentuate other parts of the movement in my mind—a kind of sensory deprivation that renders other signals more acute.  That is, I have been more attuned to the physicality of movement. Without music to sew phrases together and get my body to the next step, I have had to think more critically about transitions.

I should correct and clarify my first assertion about “lack of music.”  Though there are no pitched instruments or melodies, rhythm is a strong component of the pieces.  Further, the rhythm of segments is not monotonous—accents change during different segments of the dance.  In one sense the sound of dancers’ feet on the floor creates a kind of music.  For me, however, Jennifer’s voice and the verbalization of the movement generally has become the most prominent feature of our “music.”  This realization first came to me when working on jigs—I found myself manically repeating the rhythm of “bum bum bum ba-bum” in and outside of rehearsal.  Given my background in jazz theory and composition, I have found the rhythmic complexity of Cunningham’s work to be one of the most thrilling aspects of his work.